By Clay Coleman
VANDALIA—Kathy Allen watches the children, as they get ready to board the school bus and leave her. Laughing amongst themselves, the children wait in a semi-straight line, as the bus driver opens the door and the children file in. Allen made sure those children who didn’t have enough to eat, went home with a backpack full of food. She remembered asking a child once if he had something to eat for Thanksgiving. When he told her he had eaten hot dogs, she made a vow to herself that she would feed them. As the last bus takes a left out of the parking lot, Allen turns away and walks back inside.
Last Thursday, in a 4-2 decision, Van-Far’s Board of Education approved the school district going to a four day school week, starting in the Fall of 2020. Running from Tuesday through Friday, the school day will be extended from 7:55 a.m. to 3:41 p.m.
“I felt this was a measure we could put in place to help bolster employee retention in a tight job market,” said Board of Education member Tony Dameron on why he voted yes. “We had positions that went unfilled. The highschool went without a biology teacher this year.”
Not everyone is happy about the change, though. School board member Jim Hopke, who voted no on the measure, is concerned about children missing a full day of school and the impact it will have. “I have had teachers call me up and say they’ve changed their minds,” replied Hopke. “The school will be open for sports and not education?” he questions, “I don’t feel this will be beneficial to the students at all.”
Another concern for Van-Far parents will be what to do with those children who need daycare services. Currently, the only daycare facility in Vandalia, Sonlight Christian Daycare, is at max capacity. “We only have room for 44 children,” said Sonlight Director Karen Wilkes. “We would have to either build another building or move to a different location,” Wilkes added.
Vandalia’s only other space for afterschool care, Eastern Missouri Family YMCA, cannot watch the children either. “We don’t have the facilities to do this,” said YMCA Director Debbie Hopke. When asked why this would be an issue, Hopke stated, “We only have one room available for the kids, and we can’t expect them to stay in one place.” Hopke further added, “The kids would leave the room and play with the gym equipment. That’s not safe.”
Tony DeGrave, Van-Far R1 School District superintendent, assured parents that the school district was aware of the issue. “We certainly understand obtaining daycare for children is going to be an issue for some families as we transition to the four-day week,” said DeGrave. “That’s one reason the board decided to make the decision now, so parents will have time to plan for daycare before the 20-21 school year.”
Another issue affecting Van-Far’s parents are their children’s nutrition. In the U.S., 16.2 million children do not eat healthy food regularly. In some cases, a child’s only meal will be the one the school provides. In Vandalia alone, 81 children received some form of food assistance. Van-Far nurse and Blessings in a Bag founder Kathy Allen plans on doing something about that.
“I went to the administration and told them we have got to do something about kids not eating healthy on the weekends,” said Allen. “So I started a program where kids go home on Friday with a backpack filled with breakfast, lunch, and a snack for two days.” Allen accepts donations at $25 per child. Going through a local vendor, the money will help feed a child for one month. “Just the other day, a woman stopped me on the street and sponsored a child,” said Allen.
When asked if the program will adapt to the new school schedule, Allen replied, “This is Van-Far. There is no doubt in my mind that people will step up to the plate and help feed these kids.”